“The Religion of the Lost Cause” Is Back, and It May Be Winning – Baptist News Global
An intelligent outsider, observing in Washington at this time, would be puzzled as to whether or not Americans had a government. There are the names: The Executive, the Congress, the Judiciary; but what is the executive question, what is the congressional question, what is the judicial question, it seems impossible to decide. It is a remarkable fact that today in Washington there is not a single well-defined department of political power!
Southerner Edward Pollard wrote these words in 1866, in Lost Cause: A New Southern History of the Confederate War, coining the term and re-mythologizing the post-Appomattox Confederacy.
In a 1980 book, Baptized in blood: the religion of the lost cause, University of Mississippi historian Charles Reagan Wilson wrote, “At the end of the Civil War, Southerners tried to accept defeat, giving rise to the lost cause. Wilson cited Pollard’s call “for a ‘war of ideas’ to retain Southern identity”, then commented: “Religious leaders and Southern secularists have defined that identity in terms of morality and religion. “
Wilson insisted that “Christian clergymen were the chief celebrants of the religion of the lost cause”. They “used the lost cause to warn Southerners of their decline of past virtue, to promote moral reform, to encourage conversion to Christianity, and to educate young people in Southern traditions; (and) over time they tied it to American values.
In other words, they hoped that a revival of these prewar religious and cultural traits would make the South, and eventually the entire nation, great again.
In 2022, it seems Edward Pollard’s call for a “war of ideas” grounded in the mythology of the lost cause has never really expired and is making a considerable comeback. Surprisingly, elements or parallels to the lost cause mythos have returned with a vengeance, not just in the southern United States, but across the country. Lost Cause-like visions of America seem to be winning the contemporary “culture war” in various state and national political contexts and in segments of American Christianity.
Minimize the impact of slavery
The parallels between the Lost Cause agendas then and now are striking. In The Enduring Lost Cause: Afterlives of a Redeemer Nation, editor Edward R. Crowther introduces the volume noting that one of Lost cause the “themes” involved substituting “sectionalism” for slavery as the primary cause of the Civil War.
“Pollard urged Southerners to downplay slavery as a central reason for the war.”
Pollard urged Southerners to downplay slavery as a central reason for the war. Instead, he substituted “sectional animosity” as evidence of multiple disputes between North and South, thereby mitigating the impact of race and racism on Southern culture and secession. Furniture slavery was “just an incident”, rather than the main source of the war. Pollard even took issue with the use of the term “slavery” saying that “the system of bondage in the South…was truly the mildest in the world”.
The call for sectionalism blunted the role of slavery, thus mitigating its impact on the North/South schism, while undermining the dehumanizing injustices that slavery perpetuated.
Parallel efforts to temper the history of slavery, Jim Crow, and race in America are happening today. The educational organization Chalkbeat has tracked at least 36 states, including all states in the Old South, which have enacted legislation to “restrict education about racism, prejudice, contributions of specific racial or ethnic groups to the United States history or related subjects,” in public schools, while only 17 states have expanded their race-related curriculum.
Many of these pieces of legislation implicitly or explicitly target Critical Race Theory, a law school-focused curriculum, as a source of “divisive concepts” imposing “political indoctrination” on public school students. Others warn that the focus on historical and contemporary racial divisions obscures America’s true identity as an “equitable democracy.”
“Opposition to critical race theory has become…a lost cause strategy with contemporary implications.”
In a Brookings Institution essay, Rashawn Ray and Alexandra Gibbons write, “CRT does not attribute racism to white individuals or even whole groups of people. On the contrary, he states “that American social institutions … are imbued with racism embedded in laws, regulations, rules, and procedures that lead to racially differential outcomes.”
While the promotion of sectionalism was a means in the 19th century to undermine the role of slavery, opposition to critical race theory became a means of limiting teaching and banning books related to slavery. past and present racial injustice, a lost cause strategy with contemporary implications.
The rise of the Klan and other militias
The Lost Cause mythos gave rise to the Ku Klux Klan, a group whose racism has been romanticized in books like clansman,written in 1905 by Thomas Dixon, a Baptist preacher and graduate of Wake Forest University, to describe how “the young South, led by the reincarnated souls of the Clansmen of old Scotland, … saved the lives of a people ” and formed “one of the most dramatic chapters in the history of the ARYAN race.
The Klan became and remains a source of white supremacy, racism and violence. Few of us can forget the July 2017 torchlight parade of Klansmen marching through Charlottesville, Virginia, chanting, “Jews won’t replace us.” More recently, the prosecution of members of the Proud Boys and other self-proclaimed militias after the January 6, 2021, uprising at the United States Capitol has been proof that the Lost Cause parallel movement militias are still with us.
Religion and the Lost Cause
In Baptized in Blood, Charles Reagan Wilson shows how Southern clergy and laity promoted a unique approach to civic piety linking the lost cause and civil religion in ways that fostered “a Southern way of life.” He cites Will Herberg’s description of a national civil religion marking “the American Way of Life, a set of beliefs accepted and revered by Protestants, Catholics, and Jews.” In it, “democracy” was the basis of this public religion, evident in documents like the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution; symbols, including hymns, songs, flags and pledges; and shared beliefs in “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
“Without the lost cause, no (Southern) civil religion would have existed.”
Wilson distinguishes between the civil religion of the South and that of the United States, dating essentially from the post-Civil War era, writing: “Without the lost cause, no civil religion (of the South) would have existed. This is where the Protestant churches and clergy of the South came in. Wilson observes, “Dixie’s religious culture, including Confederate memory, promoted a self-image of virtue and holiness and thus helped to hold Southern society together in a critical period after -war.
In God’s Last and Only Hope: The Fragmentation of the Southern Baptist Convention, I suggested that the Lost Cause identity shaped “the great myth of the South,” the claim that “the people who lost the war kept the vision. Even in defeat, Southerners were fairer, more decent, more moral, and more God-fearing than their Yankee counterparts ever could be. Yet beneath the rhetoric of moralism, sectionalism and theological orthodoxy lurked the lingering scourge of racism, Jim Crow and a racially segregated society.
In 2022, Lost Cause-like mythology seems particularly evident in religion-related issues and divisions in secular and sacred spheres, with disputes over national, religious, political, racial and gender identity, to name a few. name a few.
A May 9 New York Times The article highlights a “seismic shift” that is dividing evangelicals, noting, “Across the country, theologically conservative white evangelical churches that were once comfortably united have found themselves at odds on many of the same issues that divide the Party. republican and other institutions. The disruption, fear and physical separation of the pandemic have exacerbated each rupture. »
The article describes white evangelicals as being divided into two camps: “those who embrace Trump-style messaging and politics, including references to conspiracy theories, and those who seek to navigate in a different way.”
And what about this “different way?” Surely this does not require re-mythologizing but reforming, if not America, at least the Church of Christ in America, not as a lost cause but as a beloved community.
Let’s go. By grace.
Bill Leonard is Founding Dean and James and Marilyn Dunn Professor Emeritus of Baptist Studies and Church History at Wake Forest University School of Divinity in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. He is the author or editor of 25 books. Originally from Texas, he lives in Winston-Salem with his wife, Candyce, and their daughter, Stephanie.
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